OBJECTIVE: To describe the magnitude and distribution of health problems in Australia, in order to identify key opportunities for health gain. DESIGN: Descriptive epidemiological models for a comprehensive set of diseases and injuries of public health importance in Australia were developed using a range of data sources, methods and assumptions. Health loss associated with each condition was derived using normative techniques and quantified for various subpopulations, risks to health, and points in time. The baseline year for comparisons was 2003. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Health loss expressed as disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and presented as proportions of total DALYs and DALY rates (crude and age-standardised) per 1000 population. RESULTS: A third of total health loss in 2003 was explained by 14 selected health risks. DALY rates were 31.7% higher in the lowest socioeconomic quintile than in the highest, and 26.5% higher in remote areas than in major cities. Total DALY rates were estimated to decline for most conditions over the 20 years from 2003 to 2023, but for some causes, most notably diabetes, they were projected to increase. CONCLUSION: Despite steady improvements in Australia's health over the past decade, there are still opportunities for further progress. Significant gains can be made through achievable changes in exposure to a limited number of well established health risks.